Seriously -- Wal-Mart?
But then I learned more about Ellison, an affable forty-something outdoorsman-philosopher whose first venture brought Soviet and American delegations together on wild rivers in both countries -- in the midst of the Cold War. Diplomacy and friendships sprang out of the bonds that inevitably develop when people row together down hair-raising rapids.
Now Ellison engaged in an entirely different kind of diplomacy, bringing corporate titans and environmentalists together so they, too, can focus on their common ground -- and how protecting the planet can actually be the greatest business opportunity of the century.
The river guide can rattle off one example after another of freshly converted business leaders pursuing the least polluting, least wasteful, and least energy-hogging practices. Why do companies such as Wal-Mart do this? Because they have realized (with Ellison's help) that this isn't just the most planet-friendly way of doing business. It also can be the most profitable way of doing business.
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Here’s a prime example of what’s been going on: It began with a toy truck, which Wal-Mart sold by the million.
Encouraged by Ellison to take some baby steps toward greater sustainability, Wal-Mart shaved a few inches off the cardboard packaging of its toy fleet. Then they did the math: The move saved 4,000 trees -- good for the planet, obviously. But it brought other consequences, too: Smaller packages required 497 fewer shipping containers to pack and a million fewer barrels of oil to move the products from factory to warehouse to store. That led to $2.4 million in savings for the retailer within a year. Wal-Mart would have to sell $60 million in toys to earn that same amount.
That was just one product, but it seemed to light a fire within Wal-Mart 's former CEO, H. Lee Scott, to uncover other missed opportunities to be both sustainable and profitable. Overcoming his own skepticism, Scott gave the green light to keep going green, and allowed Ellison to open the normally secretive company to outsiders with fresh ideas -- even the former president of the Sierra Club, who once called Wal-Mart "the devil."
What happens when a Wal-Mart -- or American dairy farmers or the global fashion industry, both of which are following Wal-Mart's lead -- start looking for green choices throughout their businesses because it serves the bottom line? The potential is mind-boggling, and represents one of the most hopeful green trends today.
The unlikely partnership of a river guide and a CEO has helped set in motion what could be the next industrial revolution -- the story I explore in my new book, Force of Nature. I hope you'll find it as intriguing and important a tale as I did.